Samuel Brannan: the Mormon leader in California matched wits with Brigham Young

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) Samuel Brannan is unique among Mormon historical figures because his role goes beyond his contribution to Mormonism. Brannan (1818-1889) was trusted enough to lead a Mormon colony on a very long sail from the east coast to what is now San Francisco. The ship, The Brooklyn, stopped in Hawaii. While in California, gold was discovered, and Sam Brannan made a public announcement of the find.

It was gold which led to Brannan’s disassociation from the Mormon Church, and being officially severed from the church in 1851. Once gold was discovered, Brannan became very eager to collect tithes. (Until then, Brannan had overseen the colony of Mormons in a less than pious manner, without organizing a branch, causing one of his party to complain to church leaders that the colony was “acting in the same manner as their neighbors … speculating in land, drinking, gambling, and giving their daughters in marriage to non-Mormons.

(I take a short break to note that the source of this post is from the April 1959 edition of the Utah Historical Quarterly, “The Apostasy of Samuel Brannan,” written by Eugene E. Campbell.)

Indeed, Brannan made sure the Mormon aspect of his colonization was underplayed. The move was successful to the extent that it made him a leading public figure in the early days of San Francisco. Brannan also became a big booster of the Latter-day Saints moving from Utah to California, telling members that would happen soon. Brannan’s deliberate policy of downplaying Mormonism — he published in the newspaper he started, “The California Star,” that the paper would “eschew with the greatest caution, everything that stands to the propagation of sectarian dogma” — put him at odds with Brigham Young and the Utah church leadership, which desired a propagation of Mormonism.

As a result, Brannan found himself in conflict with more traditional church members who sent messages to Salt Lake City unfavorable to the church’s San Francisco leader. Brannan, on the other hand, attempted to maintain a non-traditional manner of control over his branch of the ┬áchurch while at the same time sending Brigham Young slavish, sycophantic notes professing his allegiance and desiring counsel on various matters from Young.

Anyone who has read John Turner’s definitive biography of “Brigham Young” can only imagine how the sardonic Young would react to Brannan’s attempts to mollify him. It all came to a head after Young learned of Brannan’s energetic attempts to gather “tithing” from gold being prospected in northern California. Using a very polite manner of snark, Young sent Brannan a letter that put his faith in Mormonism to an economic test.

In the letter, Young wrote, “The man who is always doing right has no occasion to fear any complaints that can be made against him, and I hope that you have no cause to fear. I am glad to hear you say that I may rely on your ‘pushing every nerve to assist me and sustain me to the last,’ for I do not doubt that you have been blessed abundantly and now shall have it in your power to render most essential service.” At this point, Young got to specifics, instructing Brannan to send $10,000 tithing to Apostle Amasa Lyman, as well as $20,000 to assist him, Brigham Young, and another $20,000 to assist “Brothers Kimball and Richards.”

At the end of his letter, Young wrote, “Now, Brother Brannan, if you will deal justly with your fellows, and deal out with a liberal heart and open hands, making a righteous use of your money, the Lord is willing that you should accumulate the treasures of the earth and good things in times of abundance, but should you withhold when the Lord says give, your hope and pleasing prospects will be blasted in an hour you think not, and no arm to save. But I am pursuaded (sic) better things of Brother Brannan. I expect all that I have asked when Brother Lyman returns and may God bless you to this end is the prayer of your brother in the new covenant.”

I doubt very seriously that Brigham Young expected to get $10,000, or $50,000 from Samuel Brannan when the apostle Lyman arrived. But the Mormon prophet did know how to get rid of a leader he wanted out. Faced with the prospect of remaining a leader in the California LDS Church or parting with tens of thousands of dollars, Brannan found it an easy decision to leave Mormonism. When Lyman arrived, he and his companion were given $500 by Brannan as well as some books. Lyman’s companion, Charles C. Rich, wrote “We paid Mr. Samuel Brannan a visit and learned from him that he stood alone and knew no one only himself and his family. …

Thus ended the tenure of Samuel Brannan as a Mormon leader. He stayed busy, becoming California’s first millionaire and a leading citizen of early San Francisco. There he became a leader of the crime-fighting group, The Vigilantes. It was that association which finally led to his excommunication from the Mormon Church. The church branch disciplined him via unanimous vote for “a general course of unchristianlike conduct, neglect of duty, and for combining with lawless assemblies to commit murder and other crimes.”

That was the official reason. But Brannan’s fate in the Mormon Church was sealed when he chose to ignore Young’s sly, ironic request for a share of the gold that had been discovered in California.

Ironically, although Brannan became a millionaire, he eventually lost his fortune and died in poverty. According to Campbell’s UHQ piece, his body was unclaimed in San Diego for a year before a friend donated a gravesite.

A devout Mormon might cite Young’s words, “but should you withhold when the Lord says give, your hope and pleasing prospects will be blasted in an hour you think not, and no arm to save” as being a fulfilled prophecy. Others just might think that this Mr. Brannan was the victim of bad financial luck in the latter decades of his life.


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6 Responses to Samuel Brannan: the Mormon leader in California matched wits with Brigham Young

  1. Wayne Dequer says:

    An excellent example of “Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn . . .” D&C 121:34-40

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  4. Michael Trujillo says:

    My favorite taqueria is on Brannan St.

  5. john bocchetti says:

    It appeared Sam had enough to do with the latter-day snakes, if you’ve read the Samuel Brannan papers you’ll discover he’s was much brighter than the deluded believers of the book of Mormon wondertale. I graduated from BYU in 1977, they’ve invented a cosmology right out of the comic books. Crooks, thieves and liars as well as abusers of women and children. Hence latter-day snakes. Oh I’m a native of San Francisco and I excuse not myself even if the golden gate bridge falls down.

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